Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Place For Your Pills

Accession # 1901.0002
Item: Object: Pill Box
This small pill box, only .5 inches tall and just under an inch wide, is made of blue and black enamel. On the lid is written “Let your love like mine be lasting”.  Mrs. Randolph may have used a pill box similar to this to hold home remedies of her own or pills bought at the apothecary if there was one nearby.

Drugs were so expensive in the 18th century that colonists looked to their own gardens for remedies. Mrs. Randolph provided the health care for the plantation. It was common for the mothers to provide such care where there were few doctors. Powdered compounds were held together with wax, in dry or wet form. Plants and herbs were ground into powder using a mortar and pestle. “Benefits” were plants used to prevent disease while “helps” were the ones that provided cures. Some herbs that may have been used include foxglove, sassafras, sweet basil, and digitalis. Some of the home remedies of the past have affected our medicine of the present. The inside bark of the Willow tree was chewed to lessen pain. It contains an ingredient that goes into modern aspirin tablets.

Pills are first seen being used in ancient Egyptian times, as documented on papyruses. These were made of bread dough, honey, or grease. Plant powders that may have included cinnamon, myrrh, or saffron were mixed with them by rolling the ingredients into balls. In the 18th century patented medicine that one could buy from the general store or apothecary contained secret ingredients. Some examples of brand names were “Scot’s Pills”, “Daffy’s Elixir”, “Dutch Drops”, and “Goddard Drops.” Some others are “Chase’s Kidney-Liver Pills” and “William’s Pink Pills for Pale People (for the blood and nerves).” An apothecary could have used a pill tile to roll and divide pills. By 1700, drugs were tested and endorsed but not many of them worked. Some examples are: digitalis (the dried leaves of the purple foxglove) which was given for tuberculosis; iron salts for anemia; and Colchicum (a medical preparation made from the seeds or bulbs of the meadow saffron which had a solid bulblike rootstock and purple flowers) for rheumatic pains. Innovations in the 1800s included sugar or gelatin coating of pills.

The pill box is only big enough to fit maybe one or two pills. However, it would have fit well in the pocket of breeches or a petticoat more easily than a bottle and only a few pills are most times necessary to take.  If the pill box was a gift to the original owner, the message on the outside would bring to mind the giver of the box each time the bearer of it used it. Hopefully, it would make the consumption of the medication under the pleasant words much more endurable.


“Digitalis.” Def. 2  and “Colchicum.” Def. 3. Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged. 2nd ed. 1979.

Mestel, Rosie.“The Colorful History of Pills can fill many a tablet.” LA Times on the Web. 25 March 2002. 19 November 2011. <>.

Silverman, Milton Morris. Pills, Profits, and Politics. Berkley: University of California Press, 1974.

Terkel, Susan Neiburg, Colonial American Medicine. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993.

Townsend, John. A Painful History of Medicine: Pills, Powders and Potions, A History of Medicine. Chicago: Raintree Publishing Company, 2006.

Wilbur, C. Keith. Revolutionary Medicine 1700-1800. 2nd ed. Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1997.

Image Credits:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Finery for the Occasion

Shoe Buckle, 18th-19th century
Ascension #: 1901.15.2

The Randolphs would have wanted to show off at their Twelfth Night celebration. One of the ways to show off their wealth was through their dress. Decked out in the most expensive attire, the Randolphs would let their guests know just how much they could afford. One part of the Randolph gentlemen’s wardrobe which they would have brought out for such a celebration were their fancier shoe buckles to replace their everyday brass ones. The shoe buckle pictured above is oval shaped with an inset pattern of glass jewels and is kept in a black, leather, dome lidded storage box lined with a satin, hair-filled display cushion.

Early buckles, dating back to the early seventeenth century, were made out of bronze or silver and were more practical than attractive. By the end of the eighteenth century they were considered fashionable. Most of the buckles were made in England and sold in the colonies. In the late eighteenth century the center of the buckle industry in Birmingham, England was able to produce more than 2.5 million pairs of buckles each year using the newly invented stamping machine which made the buckles from molds. Prior to this time, buckles were cast in molds to achieve their initial shape, and then were finished with hand tools.  

Shoe buckles made in the late eighteenth century had mainly rectangular frames, though round and shuttle-shaped frames were also being made. A pin in the center carried the parts that kept the buckle and straps together. They were decorated with molded ornaments and engraving. Buckles could also be silver or gold plated to protect them from the elements. 

There were buckles designed to be worn at certain times such as those worn to funerals called “mourning buckles”. Silver and gold buckles were worn everyday, while the buckles with jewels and other embellishments were reserved for special occasions. Ironically, one historian points out, the most prestigious and expensive buckles were ornamented with paste stones.” By the 18th century, shoe buckles made of “metal titania”, which were finished with titanium oxide to give them a mirror-like finish, became a status symbol of the wealthy. As noted by one writer, “A person’s status could be judged by a swift glance at his or her feet”. Those who were at the Randolphs for a special occasion such as Twelfth Night would have had no doubt about the wealth of their host and hostess as they saw them walk in to greet their guests.


Shoe Buckles: A brief history. All About Shoes. 26 December 2011. 28 December 2011.
Stelten, Ruud. “The Golden Rock: Seventeenth-and eighteenth century from Oranje Bay, St. Eustatius”.
           Bachelor Thesis. Universiteit Leiden, 2006.